Jenny was a beautiful young woman. We had a lot in common; she loved writing, video games, Japan, and anime. I shared some of my collection with her. She did extremely well in school, and was surrounded by friends. She played soccer and coached as well. She was sweet, loving and bright, and as she approached college her future looked bright, at least to those around her.
Jenny committed suicide two years ago, before she got there. The church for her funeral was so packed they had people standing outside. So many people loved her. I watched her parents and siblings struggle through speeches, her father sobbing helplessly as he asked her why she never said anything, why she didn’t let him help. Her sister ended the ceremony by reading Jenny’s favorite childhood book, Goodnight Moon, and I could barely hear it over the sobbing of the crowd. I don’t know why Jenny chose that ending; I don’t think I ever will.
Her mother recently opened a campaign called Jenny’s Mission, an organization which seeks to bring attention and solutions to teen suicide. One of the pages can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/jennysmissiontostopteensuicide
When she opened this campaign, she asked me how I thought teen suicide could be approached, its causes and solutions. I thought for a long time about it. As those of you who follow this blog know, I personally witnessed a stranger’s suicide. But more than that, I’ve had classmates and family members commit suicide, and know many more who attempted. One of my dear friends in high school had scars on his arms from failed suicide attempts. It’s a subject that hits close to home, but there’s was even a time I thought about it, too. I have attempted to categorize the causes and solutions I see.
1) No one wants to talk about it
I had my first encounter with suicide as a teen. A neighborhood boy shot himself; everyone wondered why a handsome, bright young football player would do such a thing. His father found him and promptly had a nervous breakdown. People talked about it in whispers at the bus stop or hushed voices over their fences. There was some implication that there must be something terribly wrong with the family, even though it was likely untrue.
Around the same time, another teenager was murdered by the side of the highway. The despair was palpable; banners were hung all over the school, candlelight vigils held, and counselors brought in to talk about Carmine. A bullet ended both of their lives, but nobody wanted to talk about Jeremy.
Suicide is still a taboo topic. Until we’re willing to have open, straightforward conversations, teens who do feel suicidal will feel that there’s something terribly wrong with them, and will hide it until it’s too late.
2) No one wants to talk about depression, either
Most people don’t really understand depression. It’s far more common than anyone wants to admit. It causes a sense of hopelessness and emptiness that goes beyond mere sadness. People assume teens are moody and overemotional, and they can be, but just as often, their true problems are brushed off as “hormones” or “drama.” We forget that teenagers are in many ways very new, innocent and just as much in need of help as children.
I suffered from this in middle and early high school. My days ran together in a vague blur. I attempted to express this on multiple occasions. The counselor called me in for many talks. Most often, when I expressed that I felt sad, angry or lonely, the response I got was “Just smile more.” “If you smile, you’ll feel better.” “Being a teenager/school just sucks and you just have to get through.” “People are only as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
These responses, in addition to not actually answering the question, imply two things: that a person is completely in control of their own circumstances and that there is some amazing internal switches that ignites happiness. This is not true of teenagers. Adults can quit a terrible job, leave a partner that hurts them, and have a greater ability to change their circumstances; teenagers cannot just leave school without life altering consequences. When they are young they cannot work or support themselves. I wanted to leave school, but where would I go? Teens do at least have some greater choice if they are able to choice into another school, an option not available when I was in middle school.
As for the “just be happy!” bit…it doesn’t work. I remember hearing it over and over, and searching inside for that magic piece of my brain that would just make the sadness disappear. I couldn’t find it. After awhile, I started to feel stupid and helpless. Make up your mind to be happy! I didn’t know how to just make up my mind to be happy, and yet that was the offered solution…must have been me, too dumb to figure out how to do it. It was a cycle that began to perpetuate, looking for something to make me “happy” and make it all go away, unable to do so and being driven deeper into a spiral of distress. It was as if my anxiety was so irritating to everyone that they didn’t want to talk about it. Well, I’d think, then why the hell did you ask?
It’s hard to discern when a person is moody from when they are actively depressed, but the response needs to be the same. Genuine concern from parents, teachers, and counselors needs to be expressed. Ask questions. “Why are you sad?” Or, the absolute best question to ask any person: “What do you need?” Then, listen to the answer.
For an amazing description of depression and how it feels, read Allie Brosh’s brilliant “Depression” series on her blog Hyperbole and a Half: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html
I was lucky that I had my parents, who did care about me, and so when I did consider suicide, the thought of doing that to them stopped me. That, and whenever I thought about the kids at school who made my life hell, I just couldn’t bear to let the bastards win. But did I ask for help at school? Sure did!
3) Why didn’t they just ask for help?
This is a big one. Everyone asks why the victim just didn’t seek help. Many of them do, but their pleas for help are dismissed as drama. They indicate they’re lonely, bullied, scared…and then ignored. I’ll provide three examples.
When I was in middle school, I tried. I asked the counselor for help with the bullying, and told her I was afraid of my gym class because the kids threw volleyballs at me. Apparently she went to the kids in question and told them I didn’t like that. There were no actual consequences, so they kept doing it. After that, she just said, “Bullies are mean because they’re jealous of you. Cheer up! It’s a good thing!” I quit talking to her.
I hated my social studies teacher, but couldn’t verbalize it. I asked the principal, vice principal, and counselor to move me to another class. They told me to suck it up, not everyone likes every teacher. They told me to leave them alone. I couldn’t verbalize that I was afraid of him because he stared at my chest when I talked to him, and looked at my butt when I walked away. He tried to grab my shoulder and pat my head in a way I didn’t like. He took obvious delight in humiliating me if I got a question wrong; he’d simper, “Oh, don’t worry, cupcake! I’ll just ask a boy! He’ll fix it for you!” I spent all my time in that class staring at the door, wanting to run away and never come back.
And finally, I’m dyscalculic (mathematic dyslexia) but it wasn’t identified until I was seventeen. In seventh grade, I approached the math teacher about a question. He groaned, rolled his eyes, and said, “Why are you bothering me? Aren’t you supposed to be gifted? I have students with real problems!” and he walked away. I never asked a question in math again. I questioned myself. Maybe I was just too stupid to get it. I went home every night, trying to make sense of numbers that swam around on the page, and cried into my math book until I failed so many classes that I was remediated.
I didn’t say much to my parents; I was so afraid everything was just an illusion. I was really just dumb and unpopular and something was wrong with me, and they’d be so disappointed. As an adult I can say that was foolish, but as a teen it was very real.
Those examples probably seem small, but once they are all stacked up together, the snowball effect is one of feeling worthless. It becomes a state of learned helplessness. When things started to get really bad, I never said a word to them. After all, if they didn’t want to help with math or volleyball, and they wouldn’t stand up for me against abusive staff…why would they care at all about my life?
Any request for help needs to be handled seriously and immediately. Some of it is “drama,” but some of it is serious. And beneath drama is typically an underlying need for help, trying to learn how to deal with peers and authority and life. Brushing off concerns teaches them that there is no one to turn to when it really matters.
Teenagers are new to the world, and we forget how hard learning all of that was. For many of us, that time in our lives is so far away that it seems inconsequential. It isn’t.
Not every suicidal person asks for help; not all are depressed. Some, research implies, have a chemical imbalance that overrides their survival instinct. We may never know why some of them made the choice they did. But we can start saving others by opening up. We need to really talk, and more importantly, really listen. We as parents and educators need to understand that saying, “Smile!” “Cheer up!” and “Suck it up!” do not provide any real answers. We need to create safe environments for people to open up and find the crux of the problem. Most importantly, we need to let people know that it’s okay to feel this way, and there is help. We need to start talking about suicide.
See also: I Am a Victim of Suicide Too http://soshitech.com/2013/12/27/i-am-a-victim-of-suicide-too/